Surviving a Church Split

On April 18, 1906, at about 5:12 a.m., the San Andreas Fault shifted over a segment about 430 kilometers long, extending from San Juan Bautista in San Benito County to the upper Mattole river in Humboldt County and from there perhaps out under the ocean to an unknown distance. The shaking was felt from Los Angeles in the south, to Coos Bay, Oregon, in the north. Damage was severe in San Francisco, where a fire started that destroyed most of the downtown district. Approximately 700 people were killed.

In the last edition of "The Pastor's Coach" we talked about the earthquake-like phenomenon in the local church that can rock your spiritual world: A church split. No matter how good a leader or faithful a follower you may be, sometimes church splits will happen. There will likely be casualties, but you can survive - and so can your church. In the last edition I focused more on the causes and preventative measures. This edition will focus on what happens after the earthquake has hit.

* When the dust settles

Emotions may be flying high; people can be hurt; and of course, the crusaders will be looking for allies. Do your best to rise above the clutter and seek the truth - look for what God desires for the church.

As a paid church leader, you are responsible to protect the sheep - not scatter them. Do everything in your power to regain unity and lead the people toward reconciliation. I know this isn't easy, but neither is leadership - the tough times as well as the good are part of the territory. You will lose some people, but make sure that it's their choice not yours. Let them know you love them and would like to work things out. Don't hold a grudge - give your hurts to God. Don't lose faith in people; they really are worth all the heartache.

As a lay leader, your friends may press you to side with them - but do not blindly follow. Don't become part of a political mess. Seek out what God is saying. Ask questions. Do not allow yourself to get dragged into petty little issues that don't matter. Try to understand every point of view before making a decision and taking action. Above all else, put the good of the church and the Kingdom before any personal agendas.

Remember that anger doesn't solve anything. Forgive those who hurt you, as well as those you perceive are responsible for what has taken place. Keep in mind your church belongs to God. You are dealing with precious spiritual real estate. Whether you stay or leave, as God directs you, don't speak badly of others.

If you are a young Christian and can't understand how such a thing could happen, please keep in mind that your spiritual leaders are human. They are good but imperfect people. They are working hard and doing their best, but sometimes "humanity" can get the best of even the best of people. Put your faith in Christ; He won't let you down. Extend grace to your leaders as Christ extended grace to you.

* Brace yourself for aftershocks

Growing up in Southern California caused me to quickly learn that just because an earthquake stops, it doesn't mean it's over. There will be aftershocks, which can do substantial damage. Even if the damage isn't obvious, the havoc wreaked at an emotional level can be devastating. Aftershocks stir things up, keep people on edge, and make it difficult to let the dust settle. So brace yourself, because there will be aftershocks from a church split.

I've seen adults from both sides of the split "come to the table" to work out all of their differences. They agreed to disagree, set the ground rules for "separation," prayed, forgave, and shook hands. They did everything short of sing Kum-ba-ya, only to walk out the door and do something completely different that brings even more damage to the situation.

Keep your guard up - don't be paranoid, but don't get caught sleeping. This is one time when, as a leader, you don't get to take a break.

* Look for the good among the destruction

Watching films of firefighters and other rescue workers walk through the rubble of a major earthquake is heartbreaking. They are looking for signs of life. They are looking for anything that can be salvaged. Scientists do the same; they search for clues of what caused the quake and what they can learn to prevent the next one - or at least be better prepared.

As church leaders we are also responsible to "walk through the rubble" looking for good. Don't discard people who have hurt you and left the church. Humble yourself to discover what you can learn. I'm not suggesting that you lower your standards or drop your convictions; but do let go of any pride that would prevent further growth as a leader or restoration in the body of Christ.

* Begin to rebuild

It's tough to be a church leader during a church split. You too need time to heal the hurts, betrayals and abandonments you've experienced. But at the same time, you must function as an agent of reconciliation and as a church reconstructionist. This is a lot to carry, but I strongly encourage you to keep both of these aspects in mind.

The following are a few basic steps to get you headed in the right direction:

First, form a very small group (about three people who are not in your church) that can serve as your support to whom you can vent, heal, and gain Godly wisdom and perspective.

Second, discover who the new core leaders are. Gather and pray. Don't waste time talking about others and discussing whose fault it is - invest your time into productive and creative thinking.

Third, assess the damage and stabilize the situation. Like in a hospital emergency room where doctors quickly figure out what the critical points of damage are, the focus is on stabilizing the patient. That is the job of the core leaders. Focus on things such as grace, forgiveness, unity and community - they are your best tools.

Fourth, begin to think through and design a plan to rebuild. Your plan will include things such as finances, morale, people, momentum, spiritual vitality, and trust.

Ask God specifically how He wants to use you as an agent of renewal and reconstruction, and follow through one step at a time.

My hope is that you'll never have to put this article to practice, but just in case, you'll be better prepared. Or perhaps you know a friend caught in this tough situation, and some of these thoughts will be helpful to them.

This article is used by permission from Dr. Dan Reiland's free monthly e-newsletter 'The Pastor's Coach' available at